Massachusetts testing sewage for COVID-19 spread

Colin A. Young
State House News Service

If you live in Boston or any of more than three dozen other eastern Massachusetts communities, you could be sending vital data to public health officials with each flush of your toilet.

Through the end of the year, the sewage arriving at the Deer Island Treatment Plant will be tested three times a week for signs of the coronavirus, meant to serve as an early warning system for spikes in COVID-19 activity in communities that account for more than 40 percent of the state’s cases.

The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority board last week approved a six-month, $200,000 contract with Biobot Analytics, a startup founded by MIT graduates and faculty, to collect and test samples of wastewater arriving at two different intakes at Deer Island and to conduct rapid analysis for signs of the virus that causes COVID-19.

“Analysis of wastewater for the genetic signal (viral RNA) of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 is proving to be a cost effective approach to providing population level screening for outbreaks of COVID-19,” MWRA Executive Director Fred Laskey wrote to the board in a memo.

Biobot Analytics was the first company to demonstrate in the United States that it is possible to gauge levels of coronavirus activity by screening raw sewage. The company looked at samples provided by the MWRA and determined that signs of the virus “were significantly higher than expected based on clinically confirmed cases in Massachusetts as of March 25.”

Laskey said Biobot eventually provided pro bono services to more than 400 treatment facilities in 43 states, and requested additional wastewater samples from MWRA. Those samples, he said, were used to establish a baseline for the communities that send wastewater to Deer Island from January through May.

“This data series tracks well with and precedes the reports of new clinically established cases by about seven days,” Laskey wrote.

In other words, signs that more people are becoming infected with COVID-19 and that the virus is spreading more show up in wastewater about a week before testing sites and hospitals start seeing increases in sick patients.

The partnership between MWRA and Biobot that began in early March has continued, and the authority said in a presentation to board members last week that raw data from Deer Island collected the week of June 15 “shows continued downward trend” in the prevalence of the coronavirus.

Authority officials noted that those samples were collected after Phase 2 of the state’s reopening began and after some of the large demonstrations that were held in Boston and other communities.

“This pilot program will take this approach a step further by continuing the regular analyses of the wastewater and trending of the signal from the MWRA service area for the remainder of calendar 2020,” Laskey wrote. “MWRA will likely use the lessons learned from this pilot program to establish a long-term program through a competitive bid process for 2021 and beyond for as long as COVID-19 continues to be a public health threat. We will also use the results to evaluate a longer term program that could inform additional public health initiatives or concerns.”




Massachusetts death total from COVID-19 passes 8,000

Katie Lannan
State House News Service

The state’s death toll from COVID-19 surpassed 8,000 on Friday, with the report of 50 new fatalities. Thirty-nine of those deaths were among patients with test-confirmed cases of COVID-19, while the other 11 were from probable cases, which the Department of Public Health defines as someone with a positive antibody test who either had COVID-like symptoms or experienced likely exposure to the respiratory disease.

Of the 8,013 people in Massachusetts whose deaths are attributed to COVID-19, the bulk — 4,996 people — were aged 80 and older. Sixty-three percent of the deaths, or 5,051, were reported in long-term care facilities.

The state’s total caseload now stands at 108,070, including 103,071 test-confirmed cases and 4,999 probable cases indicated by antibody tests. Friday’s report included 149 new confirmed cases, from 8,545 viral tests, and 84 new probable cases.

The seven-day weighted average of the positive molecular test has been below 2 percent since June 20, according to the Department of Public Health, but ticked up slightly on June 25, to 1.9 percent from 1.8 percent the previous two days. The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 dropped by 31 in Friday’s report, to 791, with 156 patients in intensive care units and 99 intubated. Two of the state’s hospitals were using their surge capacity, down from four the previous day.




Coronavirus outbreak costing City of New Bedford $150,000 a week

According to New Bedford’s Cheif Financial Officer Ari Sky, the City of New Bedford has incurred $1.5 million in COVID-19 expenses through June 5, 2020. In his note to City Councilor Linda Morad, he stated the cost has risen to $150,000 a week and expects the costs to be around $2 million in total. Sky also expects most of the expenses to be reimbursed by FEMA and the CARES Act.

The largest expenses were $225,000 for 95,000 fabric masks purchased from Joseph Abboud as part of the MaskNB program and the purchase of 56 Dell Computers at 56,962.80.

Here is the letter to Councilor Morad and a detailed breakdown of expenses:

06.25.2020_COMMUNICATION-EMAIL_-_CURRENT_COVID19_EXPENSES

06.25.2020_COVID-19_EXPENSES_SPREADSHEET




African American blood donors needed in Massachusetts

Michael P. Norton
State House News Service

The number of African Americans donating blood with the Red Cross has dropped by more than half since the COVID-19 outbreak began in mid-March, and African American donors are critically needed to help patients battling sickle cell disease, according to the Massachusetts Health Council.

The cancellation of blood drives at businesses, churches, and schools, along with the disproportionately high COVID-19 infection rate among African Americans, is contributing to the lower donor turnout, which is concerning since African American donors are vital for patients with rare blood types, like sickle cell disease, who depend on blood that must be matched very closely to reduce the risk of complications.

The American Red Cross, with New England Patriots players Devin and Jason McCourty, the Rev. Liz Walker of Roxbury Presbyterian Church, Clappazzola Partners, and other community groups, plans a five-hour blood drive starting at 10 a.m. on June 30 at Northeastern University’s Matthews Arena, according to the council. “Sickle cell has affected our family and watching our family fight inspired us to get involved,” Devin McCourty said.

According to the council, healthy individuals who are feeling well may also make an appointment to donate by downloading the free Red Cross Blood Donor App, visiting RedCrossBlood.org, calling 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767) or enabling the Blood Donor Skill on any Alexa Echo device.

“Blood transfusion helps patients with sickle cell disease – the most common genetic blood disease in the U.S. – and African American donors play an important role in their treatment,” said Dr. Yvette Miller, executive medical officer, Red Cross Blood Services. “We want to assure donors that their health and safety is a top priority for the Red Cross. By adding safeguards to our drives in response to this coronavirus, we hope individuals will roll up a sleeve to help those counting on their donation.”




Massachusetts schools required to prepare for three back-to-school scenarios

Katie Lannan
State House News Service

Massachusetts schools this fall will be required to develop hybrid learning plans that teach students in-person and remotely on alternating schedules, under guidance that state education officials are releasing Thursday.

In order to reopen after a spring where schools abruptly closed their classrooms and shifted to remote learning as COVID-19 cases mounted, school officials will have to develop three models: one for entirely remote learning, one for a hybrid of remote and in-person instruction, and an in-person model that complies with new health and safety protocols. Those in-person protocols will require the reconfiguration of classrooms, schedules, and other elements of the traditional school day, according to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

All adults and students in second grade and above will be required to wear masks or face coverings, and time for “mask breaks” will be built in throughout the day. Exceptions will be made for medical conditions and other health and safety factors, and students in kindergarten and first grade “should be encouraged” to wear masks or face shields.

Classrooms will be re-arranged to accommodate physical distancing — the department wants schools to aim for a distance of six feet when feasible, with three feet the minimum distance allowed. There will not be a prescribed maximum on group sizes, as long as the distancing requirements are met. Schools will be asked to use libraries, auditoriums and cafeterias for additional classroom space.

Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeff Riley published guidance earlier this month indicating that masks, smaller class sizes and frequent hand-washing would be part of a return to school. The sudden shift to remote learning has underscored gaps in technology and access, and presented new challenges for working parents. A return to physical school buildings and the associated public health precautions will likely bring new costs to schools that are already bracing to receive less state aid than they’d anticipated due to the economic downturn. Riley, who this spring convened a working group to help develop a reentry plan, is scheduled to join Gov. Baker at a noontime State House press conference, along with Education Secretary James Peyser and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito.




New Bedford reports one new coronavirus in two days

New Bedford health officials reported one new COVID-19 case on Wednesday and zero cases on Tuesday raising the total COVID-19 count in New Bedford to 2,123. Three new COVID-19 related death was reported on Tuesday bringing the death count to 108 in the city.

Cases overall in Fall River actually decreased by 2, according to the Mayor’s Office, due to address corrections. This makes the total in Fall River stand at 1,566. Full details here.

Courthouses in Massachusetts will reopen to the public on July 13 for limited purposes, with the courts continuing to conduct most business virtually. Full details here.




Poll: Many not eager to engage in reopening Massachusetts

Matt Murphy
State House News Service

The gradual reopening of the economy in Massachusetts has led to employees feeling more stable in their jobs and financial situations over the past month, according to a new Suffolk University poll for WGBH News, the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and MassLive.

[Graphic: Chris Lisinski/SHNS]

But residents continue to harbor anxiety over venturing back out to engage in what used to be mundane activities, like eating at a restaurant or taking the subway to see a baseball game. And parents are deeply divided over whether they think it’s safe to send their children back to daycare or school, according to the poll.

The pandemic has also hit communities of color particularly hard financially, according to the survey, with Hispanic residents far more likely than white, Black and Asian workers to report diminished income from the coronavirus outbreak, and workers with less education and lower incomes before the pandemic reporting a greater impact from COVID-19.

The WGBH News/SHNS/Suffolk survey of 500 Massachusetts residents was conducted June 18-21 with live callers on cellphones and landlines. It has a margin of error of 4.4 percent.

Michael Riccardelli, 31, of Worcester, worked as a cook for faculty, staff and students at Worcester State University when the pandemic hit and the college shut down its campus. While he hopes to return to his job in the fall, he has had to rely on unemployment benefits to scrap by since March, and even those have now been shut off due to confusion over what program he should qualify under.

“A lot of restaurants are hiring now. Everyone’s opening. But the rent’s due at the end of the month,” said Riccardelli, who hopes to find something part-time until the fall.

The worry still being felt across Massachusetts as the rate of new infections, deaths and hospitalizations from COVID-19 decline underscores the challenges of returning to some normalcy, and reviving an economy before a vaccine for the virus becomes available.

Over 27 percent of people said they had either an extremely high level of fear or were living through the most fearful moments of their lives, while another 39.4 percent of people said they had above average fear.

“It’s anxiety inducing,” Riccardelli said. “I want to go out and I want things to be open again. But I have terrible asthma. If I did get it, this would destroy me.”

Forty-eight percent said they were somewhat or very concerned about their personal financial situation or employment, down from 56 percent in late April and early May, while the percent of people not at all concerned rose from 25.8 percent to 34.2 percent.

The number of people reporting that the pandemic had diminished their regular income was also down over nine points to 36.4 percent.

“That tide has been stemmed. It’s still high, but the trend line is going in the right direction,” said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, which conducted the poll.

Hispanic workers were far more likely than white, Black and Asian workers to report a loss of income, with 48 percent of Hispanic residents saying they had lost income due to the coronavirus compared to 44 percent of Asian, 39 percent of Blacks and 34 percent of white residents.

Workers who earned less before the pandemic and had attained lower levels of education were also more likely to say they had seen their income diminish compared to workers with more formal education and higher salaries.

“That’s a problem,” Paleologos said. “COVID-19 has become this regressive tax on people because lower income people are hurting the most. People who can sit at home and do Zoom meetings don’t have to be out scraping for their hourly wage.”

As in all polls, smaller subsets of people carry a higher margin of error.

Gov. Charlie Baker’s handling of the pandemic continued to earn him high marks, in this latest survey, with 81 percent approving of his handling of the outbreak, and 74.4 percent approving of his approach to reopening the economy. Support for his handling of the outbreak was just slightly down from 84 percent in early May.

With some criticizing the governor for being too cautious, the Republican’s strongest support was with Democrats and independents, including 82 percent of Democrats and 73 percent of independents who approved of his approach to reopening the economy, compared with only 57 percent of Republicans.

“I absolutely like the way he’s done it. He’s taken his time and doing it the right way. We understand the economy is probably suffering a little for it, but he’s making the right choices. Slow but steady,” said Rachelle Smith, 56, of Brockton, who identified as a Democrat.

The WGBH News/SHNS/Suffolk poll found a vast disconnect between people’s feelings about Massachusetts versus the country, with 71 percent saying the state is on the right track, but only 19.8 percent feeling the same about the country.

As Baker has slowly allowed parts of the economy to reopen for business, he has urged residents not to become complacent about the social distancing and mask-wearing practices that he attributes to Massachusetts’s ability to safely return to some activities.

Yet, the survey suggests that some people are growing more relaxed about needing to stay at home as much as possible and not gathering in groups.

Only 44.2 percent of those polled said they were very strict about social distancing, compared with over 69 percent a little more than a month ago, and 11.4 said they weren’t strict at all. That trend was more evident among younger people, with only 21 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds reporting that they are “very strict” about social distancing, compared with 62 percent of those over 65.

“That just blinks a red light to me, because they could potentially be carriers,” Paleologos said.

Smith works as residential counselor, and while her employment has not been interrupted she’s had to endure daily temperature checks, and has even gone through “lock-ins” for two-week stretches in the group homes to prevent the spread of the virus.

“I’m really, really, really nervous because people are not taking the right precautions. Some people are afraid to say they’re sick. They don’t want to go to the hospital, and don’t have the money for that,” Smith said.

Others are more confident in people taking the necessary precautions to control the spread of the virus. Raul Silva, a civil engineer with the Department of Conservation and Recreation, said he feels precautions like wearing masks and maintaining distance have become ingrained.

“I think folks have gotten used to it. Everyone has a mask at their front door. I think it’s just become more normal to wear a mask,” Silva said.

Even though businesses are reopening, all people aren’t quite comfortable yet with the idea of venturing back out into the world.

With the exception of the nearly 78 percent of people who said they are comfortable with seeing family members and relatives in person (up six points), the reluctance to go out to eat or ride a train has remained largely unchanged over the past month.

Forty-one percent in this most recent survey said they would be comfortable dining at a restaurant, compared to 42 percent in early May, while only 19.2 percent said they’d be comfortable riding a bus, subway or commuter train, up just over one percentage point.

Only 23.4 percent of people said they’d be comfortable attending a sporting event, and 22.8 percent said they’d be alright with the idea of getting on a plane. In fact, the number of people comfortable with the idea of returning to school or the office fell from 58 percent in the last survey to 50.2 percent this month.

“I think it’s going Ok. But there’s still some things I won’t do,” said Barry Ellison, 40, of Hamilton, discussing the reopening. He specifically mentioned eating indoors at a restaurant, which was allowed for the first time in months on Monday.

“Even though they’re reopened at this point, I don’t really feel comfortable doing that,” he said.

The 35- to 44-year-old age group was consistently the most cautious in what they felt comfortable doing, according to the poll.

Ellison worked as a service supervisor at an auto dealership until he was furloughed. He has now been offered his job back, but he will have to work entirely on commission, which was not the case before the pandemic when he was also earning a training wage. “I’m hoping for the best because I don’t have a client base,” he said.

One of the biggest challenges facing Massachusetts and its economy is figuring out how to safely reopen day cares and schools so that children don’t fall behind in their learning and parents can return fully to work.

Forty-five percent of people polled who had school-aged children at home said they’d be comfortable sending their child back to school or day care, compared to 49 percent who said they were not comfortable and 16 percent who were undecided.

Forty-eight percent of those same parents said they thought K-12 schools would be able to reopen in the fall in a way that would keep most kids and adults safe.

The survey asked all residents whether children returning to school was important enough to risk a small number of people contracting the coronavirus as a result in the fall, and 40.6 percent said it was, while 38.2 percent said remote learning was working well enough and returning to the classroom was not worth the risk.

A smaller percent — just 14.4 percent — said the educational harm being done far outweighed the health risks and children should return to school even if a significant number of people become infected as a result.




Massachusetts courthouses reopening for limited business on July 13

Michael P. Norton
State House News Service

Courthouses in Massachusetts will reopen to the public on July 13 for limited purposes, with the courts continuing to conduct most business virtually.

Under an updated order issued Wednesday by the Supreme Judicial Court, entry will be limited to people attending in-person proceedings, conducting business with a clerk’s, register’s or recorder’s office, people meeting with probation, and people conducting business at other open offices in the courthouses. The SJC said that people seeking to enter courthouses “will be screened to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

The SJC plans additional reopening phases, with the number of in-person proceedings expanding during a second phase beginning on Aug. 10. In advance of each phase, Trial Court departments will identify new matters they will be addressing in person on the court system’s COVID-19 webpage, according to the SJC.

“Jury trials in both criminal and civil cases in state courts continue to be postponed to a date no earlier than September 8, 2020,” the SJC said. “Starting July 13, judges may begin to schedule civil and criminal bench trials. No new grand jury can be empaneled prior to September 8, unless the Supreme Judicial Court so orders. Existing grand juries are extended until the date of that new empanelment or the date of the October 2020 empanelment in the relevant judicial district, whichever occurs first.”




Independent investigation examining the tragedy at Holyoke Soldiers’ Home released

Today, the Baker-Polito Administration released the independent report ordered by Governor Baker to investigate the COVID-19 outbreak at Holyoke Soldiers’ Home.

On April 1st, Governor Charlie Baker retained Attorney Mark Pearlstein, a former federal prosecutor, to investigate the causes of the tragic events that occurred at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home. The investigation and report was completed independently from the Baker-Polito Administration.

“I called for an independent and thorough investigation into the tragic events that occurred at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home to get to the bottom of what happened and take immediate action,” said Governor Baker. “This report lays out in heartbreaking detail the terrible failures that unfolded at the facility, and the tragic outcomes that followed. Our emergency response to the COVID-19 outbreak stabilized conditions for residents and staff, and we now have an accurate picture of what went wrong and will take immediate action to deliver the level of care that our veterans deserve.”

Governor Baker will hold a media availability at noon in the Gardner Auditorium at the State House to discuss the report and the Administration’s response.

Click here to read the report.




New Bedford reports no new coronavirus cases on Tuesday

For the first time since the pandemic reached New Bedford, health officials reported no new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday. The total COVID-19 count in New Bedford remains at 2,123. One new COVID-19 related death was reported on Tuesday bringing the death count to 105 in the city.

According to New Bedford health officials, Hispanics/Latinos are 20% of New Bedford’s population but account for 45.5% of the COVID-19 cases in the city. New Bedford’s white population was 67.2% of the city and accounted for 28.1% of the COVID-19 cases. Full details here.

Eight additional cases of COVID-19 have been identified in Fall River, according to the Mayor’s Office. This makes the total in Fall River stand at 1,566. Full details here.

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